B.C. forestry sector poised for steady growth

by Jim Bray

SALMO, B.C. – British Columbia has traditionally been one of Canada’s leading regions for the forest industry and despite some major challenges – not all of which are related to the economy – it appears to be poised for continued growth over the next several years. 

That’s according to Chris Sutherland, president of the Salmo-based Sutco, who told Truck West he thinks the industry will rebound after a couple of challenging years.

“Lumber prices are little bit weak right now, but in the longer term they are forecasting stronger lumber prices,” he said, noting that “many of the mills in this area have put money into their (operations) to get more production, so they’re going to need more logs.”

His forecast is aimed more at southern B.C. than other regions of the province, however, mostly because “in Central B.C. there are too many mills for the volume of logs available. But here in the west Kootenay, I think we’re going to be very healthy for a long time – as long as the whole economy, and US housing, keeps increasing and the demand remains strong.”

The reason Sutherland thinks the Kootenay area will fare better than more northerly regions is because, in part, of the mountain pine beetle that has been wreaking havoc in other parts of the province over the past decade.

“There’s too many sawmills (up there) compared to the amount of volume of timber there is,” he said, “whereas down here – we’re still going to struggle, don’t get me wrong – but I don’t think there’ll be any mill curtailments in this area. But there’ll definitely be some mill curtailments (in other regions) because there just isn’t enough fibre.”

The beetle issue is nearly moot now, he said, but the task of getting a handle on the little critters meant “we overharvested for the last seven, eight years.”

He was quick to point out the overharvesting wasn’t due to some greedy attempt on the part of the industry to make a few extra quick bucks, but, instead, was caused by the fight against the insect. “They’ve been overcutting because they’ve been attacking that beetle wood and now that wood’s gone,” he said, “so the province has been overcutting in a good way, but in the south we didn’t really have that problem. The mills are running good and we have a sustainable fibre supply here.”

Now that the overcutting has ended, Sutherland said, the situation in the province overall is back to being sustainable – though he noted that
sustainability also creates its own challenges.

“We can only cut as much as we can grow,” he said.

Still, conditions have improved to the point where Sutco is planning to expand its forestry operations this year, adding “two to three trucks,” according to Sutherland. That means finding people to drive them, of course, an issue Sutherland thinks his company is positioned well to handle.

“We try to be the leading trucking company in  the industry; we truly want to be the best,” he said. “We run modern equipment, and we’re all about sustainability and looking after our employees.”

That said, Sutherland noted that finding competent drivers in the west Kootenay is still a challenge, mainly because of its low population compared to other regions, coupled with the different skills required to drive logging trucks.

“It’s just a different breed of driver,” he said. “It’s tough to take a highway guy and turn him into a vocational log truck driver and I think that’s our biggest hurdle right now, getting educated and experienced log truck drivers.”

To combat that, Sutco offers what Sutherland described as a great training program.

“We have log truck coaches and we try to mentor experienced highway drivers into good logging truck drivers. It’s not something where you can just put the guy in the seat for a couple of days and off he goes. It takes months.”

Issues include driving off road, as well as load securement. “It’s way more precarious,” he pointed out. “A lot of these bush roads are steep with multiple switchbacks and it’s definitely different than highway driving.”

Sutco’s customers are based in the west Kootenay area, including the big Celgar mill in Castlegar.

“They take a lot of round wood pulp logs and are probably our largest customer,” Sutherland said, noting that they also work with companies such as Interfor, Atco Wood Products and the Thrums-based Kalesnikoff.

“We have seven trucks, full-time all the time,” he said, noting that “we were up to a dozen back in the heyday, back in ’08 and then of course with the recession we curtailed way back to just a couple and now we’re ramped back up.”

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